The Stories We Tell

In training for service abroad, Americans are often taught that the people of this or that traditional culture learn, argue, and decide based on stories.  This is a society of oral tradition, the instructor says with no condescension intended, and they are swayed by a good story more than by evidence.

It is true that traditional peoples live by their stories.  But so do Americans.  It’s a human thing.

Business and management consultancies have picked up on the importance of story to leadership and organizations.  Sometimes they will use the word “narrative” when a more technical- and scholarly-sounding term is called for.  Educators, preachers, politicians, salespeople all know the power of a well-placed anecdote to make an enduring impression.

Americans tell stories to understand their place in the world, and the role their country plays among other countries.  Some stories, like the role Americans played in fighting back despotic world powers in the second World War, loom large in our imagination of who we are.  Others, like the story of the 11th of September 2001 when we were attacked by foreign fanatics, color our understanding of the world in ways we’ll probably never fully comprehend.

I have a special appetite for stories that are obscure and surprising, like that of the decades-long series of conferences and workshops organized by physicists from the U.S., Soviet Union, and other nations at Pugwash, Nova Scotia, beginning in the 1950s.  They met throughout the Cold War with the ultimate purpose of eliminating the threat of weapons of mass destruction.  Over the years they would serve as a back channel that the American and Soviet governments could use to communicate when official diplomatic channels froze over.  This phenomenon of non-governmental organizations forging trans-national ties, especially as a means to resolve conflicts or prevent war, has since become known as “track II diplomacy.”

This website will need your stories.  The important foreign affairs issues of our time are starving for fresh, rich stories to feed malnourished debates.  The best stories, the truest stories, don’t fit neatly into an ideological framework.  They invite curiosity and inspire action for deeper engagement with the world.   My hope is that by exploring the multiple meanings of stories that readers provide to this site, we will discover the significance of more of the tools in our foreign policy tool box.